Tenet (2020), The Return of the Blockbuster

In a year with no tent-pole blockbusters to compete against it, Tenet has been on the mind of every film fan for months now. With the coronavirus delaying the release of the film, and while the news about Nolan and the Studio’s pushing for it to be released in recently reopened cinemas have caused a slew of discourse about whether the film was worth risking safety, and arguments about it’s projected box office earnings have been frequently brought up. But despite its budget of hundreds of millions of dollars, Nolan’s latest high-concept blockbuster is tracking to earn well, even with the limited release across the globe. As someone who is far from an ardent Nolan fan, I was curious to see whether Tenet could live up to some of the director’s previous masterpieces; but after watching the film twice now, I feel confident saying that while the film is a worthy entry among Nolan’s other work, it doesn’t quite reach the level as some of my favourite Nolan’s (which would be films like Inception, Memento and The Prestige).

It’s hard to know where to start when it comes to talking about the plot of a film like Tenet, the film purposefully kept its cards close to its chest; revealing very little in the teasers and trailers. The idea of secrecy is integral to both the plot of the film itself, secrecy is something that both the characters, and the audience, has to navigate while watching the film. So much so that while writing this I’m not even sure how much of the plot I am allowed to talk about out of fear of spoiling something. But in general terms, the narrative is strong: Nolan interweaves the high-concept time travel element of the film so easily into these lavish action set-pieces that I would argue are some of the strongest of his career. As much as I love Inception, some of the action scenes do end up feeling narratively forced, but Nolan has refined this for Tenet where none of the action sequences ever feel out of place, they always line with the narrative to feel earned and coherent. While I don’t want to go into too much detail, the Opera house scene and the vault sequence, are probably vying for the title of best action sequences of 2020, for me. On first watch I really wasn’t convinced by how the ‘gimmick’ of the film is integrated into those action scenes, but on rewatch I was much happier watching those sequences unfold. I do think there are certain gaps in logic, not to sound like I’m nitpicking, which I think purposefully add to the confusion of the film in what I believe to be an attempt to keep people thinking and guessing about the true nature of the plot, and while I would have liked some of those details more ironed out cohesively with the rest of the film, I have to give credit to what Nolan and his team were aiming to achieve with these ideas.

One of the main sources of hype, in the run up to the release, was the announcement of the cast. With John David Washington, coming off of a breakthrough performance in Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman had a lot to prove, but as the cool, suave nameless protagonist gives James Bond a run for his money. Matching the sleek and stylish costumes, with a sense of presence that matches completely, Washington produces the perfect sense of charm and intellect that bring the character to life. I do think the character is fairly one-note, and not afforded as much depth as I would have liked, but it’s understandable due to the story and Washington does the best he can with what he’s given. The standout member of the cast, for me, is Robert Pattinson’s Neil. Having been on an absolute hot-streak with his work with indie filmmakers, it seemed almost alien to see Pattinson back in a tent-pole blockbuster like Tenet, but like we’ve seen in films like Good Time and The Lighthouse, with a good director guiding his performance Pattinson is able to bring the fire to his role. Playing off the more stoic protagonist, Pattinson’s side-kick gives ample room for him to shine, he’s charming and charismatic but also contains himself well in the more high-octane action sequences. Similarly I feel that Kenneth Branagh provides a great foil for Washington’s Protagonist, whereas Washington is calm and collected, Branagh shines in his outbursts of rage and violence. Branagh really is the linchpin of the film for me, being such an important villain in the narrative, and through his performance it only amplifies the gravitas that the script deserves. However, I feel less complimentary about Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat, not only does the script (unsurprisingly for Nolan) not provide any real room for development or depth to the character, but I found Debicki’s performance pretty wooden and bland. She matches the sleek excellence of Washington’s protagonist, but in look alone, and while the narrative picks up the pieces from Washington’s performance the same cannot be said about Debicki’s role. 

Tenet can and should be applauded for a great number of things; not only is it a high-concept sci-fi film that is being pushed as the biggest blockbuster of the summer, something I can only dream of becoming a regular feat, but it also marks an ambitious development in Nolan’s career. Every penny of the budget feels felt on screen, the action is used in abundance and it always feels earned and justified, the writing is both complex and accessible (similar to Inception, in my opinion), and hopefully it will cement both John David Washington and Robert Pattinson as credible, deserving actors who through this film have both shown incredible versatility from their own respective filmographies. Did I love every single second of the film? No absolutely not, it has its fair share of issues in both the writing and acting departments, and a big issue with the sound mixing, but with decent editing, solid cinematography and a unique and interesting premise, Tenet is on its way to accomplish everything it set out to achieve, and we should all be happy about that. 

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